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  • Written by Dan Fesperman
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Written by Dan FespermanAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Dan Fesperman

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On Sale: July 11, 2006
Pages: 336 | ISBN: 978-0-307-26529-6
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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fiction (11) mystery (7) cuba (6) thriller (4)
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

When the body of an American soldier is discovered in Cuban waters near the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo, Revere Falk, a former FBI agent, is reassigned from his job interrogating an accused al-Qaeda operative to investigate the soldier’s mysterious death.

Falk soon finds himself in a deadly game of intrigue that stretches from the charged waters of Guantánamo Bay to the polished halls of Washington. Every move Falk makes could be costly, and to make matters worse, a dark figure from his past reappears, brandishing a secret he thought he had safely buried. The Prisoner of Guantánamo is a daring look at life behind the barbed wire of Gitmo and a riveting portrayal of what goes on in the most secret levels of our government.

Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

On the first day of his transition from captor to captive, Revere Falk stood barefoot on a starlit lawn at 4 a.m., still naively confident of his place among those who asked the questions and hoarded the secrets.

Falk was an old hand at concealment, trained from birth. The skill came in handy when you were an FBI interrogator. Who better to pry loose the artifacts of other lives than someone who knew all the hiding places? Better still, he spoke Arabic.

Not that he was putting his talents to much use at Guantanamo. And at the moment he was furious, having just returned from a botched session that summed up everything he hated about this place: too few detainees of real value, too many agencies tussling over the scraps, and too much heat—in every sense of the word.

Even at this hour, beads of sweat crawled across his scalp. By the time the sun was up it would be another day for the black flag, which the Army hoisted whenever the temperature rose beyond reason. An apt symbol, Falk thought, like some rectangular hole in the sky that you might fall into, never to reappear. A national banner for Camp Delta's Republic of Nobody, populated by 640 prisoners from forty countries, none of whom had the slightest idea how long they would be here. Then there were the 2,400 other new arrivals in the prison security force, mostly Reservists and Guardsmen who would rather be elsewhere. Throw in Falk's little subculture—120 or so interrogators, translators, and analysts from the military and half the branches of the federal government—and you had the makings of a massive psychological experiment on performing under stress at close quarters.

Falk was from Maine, a lobsterman's son, and what he craved most right now was dew and coolness, moss and fern, the balm of fogbound spruce. Failing that, he would have preferred to be nuzzled against the perfumed neck of Pam Cobb, an Army captain who was anything but stern once she agreed to terms of mutual surrender.

He sighed and gazed skyward, a mariner counting stars, then pressed a beer bottle to his forehead. Already warm, even though he had grabbed it from the fridge only moments earlier, as soon as he reached the house. The air conditioner was broken, so he had stripped off socks and shoes and sought refuge on the lawn. But when he wiggled his toes the grass felt toasted, crunchy. Like walking on burned coconut.

If he thought it would do any good, he would pray for rain. Almost every afternoon big thunderheads boiled up along the green line of Castro's mountains to the west, only to melt into the sunset without a drop. From up on this scorched hillside you couldn't even hear the soothing whisper of the Caribbean. Yet the sea was out there, he knew, just beyond the blackness of the southern horizon. Falk sensed it as a submerged phosphorescence pooling beneath coral bluffs, aglow like a candle in a locked closet. Or maybe his mind was playing tricks on him, a garden-variety case of Guantánamo loco.

It wasn't his first outbreak. Twelve years ago he had been posted here as a Marine, serving a three-year hitch. But he had almost forgotten how the perimeter of the base could seem to shrink by the hour, its noose of fencelines and humidity tightening by degrees. A Pentagon fact sheet for newcomers said that Gitmo—the military's favorite slang for this outpost—covered forty-five square miles. Like a lot of what the brass said, it was misleading. Much of the acreage was water or swamp. Habitable territory was mostly confined to a flinty wedge of six square miles. The plot marked out for Camp Delta and the barracks of the security forces was smaller still, pushed against the sea on fewer than a hundred acres.

Falk stood a few miles north of the camp. By daylight from his vantage point, with a good pair of binoculars, you could pick out Cuban watchtowers in almost every direction. They crouched along a no-man's-land of fences, minefields, wet tangles of mangrove, and scrubby hills of gnarled cactus. The fauna was straight out of a Charles Addams cartoon—vultures, boas, banana rats, scorpions, and giant iguanas. Magazines and newspapers for sale at the Naval Exchange were weeks old. Your cell phone was no good here, every landline was suspect, and e-mail traffic was monitored. Anyone who stayed for long learned to operate under the assumption that whatever you did could be seen or heard by their side or yours. Even on the free soil of a civilian's billet such as Falk's you never knew who might be eavesdropping, especially now that OPSEC—Operational Security—had become the mantra for Camp Delta's cult of secrecy. It was all enough to make Falk wish that Gitmo still went by its old Marine nickname—the Rock. Like Alcatraz.

He took another swallow of warm beer, still trying to calm down. Then the phone rang in the kitchen. He ran to answer in hopes of not waking his roomie, special agent Cal Whitaker, only to be greeted by the voice of Mitch Tyndall. Tyndall worked for the OGA, or Other Government Agency, which even the lowliest buck private could tell you was Gitmo-speak for the CIA.

"Hope I didn't wake you," Tyndall said.

"No way I'd be sleeping after that."

"That's what I figured. I was hoping to mend fences."

"The ones you just tore down?" Falk's anger returned in a hurry.

"Guilty as charged."

Tyndall sounded sheepish, new ground for him, although for the most part he wasn't a bad guy. A tall Midwesterner with a long fuse, he generally aimed to please as long as no sharing was required. Falk tended to get more out of him than others if only because they were part of the same five-member "tiger team," the organizational equivalent of a platoon in Gitmo's intelligence operation. There were some twenty-five tiger teams in all, little study groups of interrogators and analysts that divvied their turf by language and home country of the detainees. Falk's team was one of several that specialized in Saudis and Yemenis.

"Look, I spaced out," Tyndall continued. "Just blundered in there like a bull in a china shop. I wasn't thinking."

Occupational hazard with you Agency guys, Falk thought but didn't say. Unthinking arrogance came naturally, he supposed, when you were at the top of the food chain, rarely answerable to anyone, the Pentagon included. Teammates or not, there were plenty of places Tyndall could go that Falk couldn't. The CIA sometimes used a different set of interrogation rooms, and recently the Agency had even built its own jail, Camp Echo. It was Gitmo's prison within a prison, and its handful of high-priority inmates were identified by number instead of by name.

"Yeah, well, there seems to be a lot of mindlessness going around," Falk said.

"Agreed. So consider this a peace offering. Or an apology, at any rate. We might as well kiss and make up, considering where things are headed."

"The rumors, you mean? Spies in our midst? Arab linguists on a secret jihad?"

"It's not just rumor, not by a long shot."

Coming from Tyndall, that was significant, so Falk tried to goad him into saying more.

"Oh, I wouldn't believe everything you hear, Mitch."

Tyndall seemed on the verge of rising to the bait, then checked himself with a sigh.

"Whatever. In any case. No hard feelings?"

"None you couldn't fix with a favor or two. And maybe a few beers at the Tiki Bar. It's Adnan's feelings you should be worried about. I'll be lucky to get two words out of him after that little explosion. It's all about trust, Mitch. Trust is everything with these guys." He should have quit there, but his memory flashed on a slide they always showed at the FBI Academy in Quantico, a screen full of big letters saying, "Interrogation is overcoming resistance through compassion." So he pushed onward, a sentence too far: "Maybe if you guys would stop stripping 'em naked with the room at forty degrees you'd figure that out."

"I wouldn't believe everything you hear," Tyndall snapped.

"Whatever. Just stay away from Adnan. He's damaged goods as it is."

"No argument there. Tomorrow, then."

"Bright and early. And remember, you owe me."

Falk stared at the phone after hanging up, wondering if anyone bothered to tune in at this hour. Whitaker was no longer snoring down the hall.

"Sorry," Falk offered, just in case. "It was Tyndall. From the goddamn Agency."

No reply, which was just as well. The fewer people who knew about their little dustup, the better. People who ran afoul of Mitch Tyndall soon found themselves being shunned. It wasn't the man's winning personality that turned everyone against you, it was the perception that he was privy to the big picture, while all you had was a few fuzzy snapshots. So if you were on the outs with Tyndall, there must be an important reason, even if no one but him knew what it was. Falk had long ago concluded that Tyndall wasn't fully aware of his mysterious powers, and it probably would be unwise to clue him in.

The subject of their dispute this evening was a nineteen-year-old Yemeni, Adnan al-Hamdi, a pet project of Falk's if only because he would talk to no one else. Adnan had been captured in Afghanistan nearly two years earlier, during a skirmish just west of Jalalabad. He and sixty other misfit jihadists from Pakistan, Chechnya, and the Gulf States had been rounded up by Tadjik fighters of the Northern Alliance in the wake of the Taliban's mad-dash retreat to the south. They wound up rotting in a provincial prison for six weeks until discovered by the Americans. Adnan attracted special interest mostly on the word of a fellow traveler, an excitable old Pakistani who swore that Adnan was a ringleader. Adnan, in his usual monosyllabic way, said little to confirm or deny it, so into the net he fell, joining one of Guantanamo's earliest batches of imports. He arrived blindfolded and jumpsuited in the belly of a roaring cargo plane, back when the detention facility had been a rudimentary collection of monkey cages known as Camp X-Ray.

By the time Falk came aboard more than a year later, Adnan had been deemed a lost cause by Gitmo's resident shrinks, the Behavioral Science Consultation Team, known as Biscuit. He was a mute head case who regularly threw his own shit at the MPs, sometimes after mixing it with toothpaste or mashed potatoes.

So he was unloaded on Falk, whose linguistic specialty was the dialect of Adnan's hometown of Sana, only because Falk had visited the place during the Bureau's investigation of the bombing of the USS Cole, back in 2000.

Falk set about taming the young man with gossip and lies, tales embellished by bits of color recalled from Sana's dusty narrow streets. Before long Adnan at least was listening instead of shouting back or clamping hands over his ears. Occasionally he even spoke, if only to correct details that Falk got wrong. Progress was slow, but Falk knew from experience that hardness at such an early age didn't mean there were no remaining soft spots. Unlike most detainees, Adnan couldn't even grow a full beard, and to Falk the scruff on his chin was almost poignant, like an undernourished bloom in an abandoned garden.

Perhaps Falk also recognized a fellow loner. At age thirty-three he, too, was nominally alone in the world. He had no wife, no kids, no dog, and no fiancée waiting back in Washington. The Bureau's personnel file listed him as an orphan, a conclusion left over from a lie Falk had told a Marine Corps recruiter fifteen years ago in Bangor, half out of spite and half out of a runaway's yearning for a complete break. The recruiting sergeant could have easily flushed out the truth with a little more digging. But with a monthly enlistment quota to meet and a bonus of a week's leave hanging in the balance, he hadn't been inclined to question his good fortune once Falk walked through the door.

Besides, it had almost been true. Falk's mother left when he was ten. Shortly afterward his father began a love affair with the bottle. By now, for all Falk knew, the man really was dead, drowned by either alcohol or seawater.

His earliest memories of home weren't all that bad—a white clapboard farmhouse along a buckled road on Deer Isle, birch trees out back with leaves that flashed like silver dollars. There were five Falks in those days—an older brother, an older sister, his parents, and him. To stay warm in winter they slept head to toe in bedrolls around an ancient woodstove, arranged like dominoes on a creaking pine floor. At bath time they hauled in an aluminum washtub and poured hot water straight from the kettle, his mom scrubbing his skin pink while his sister laughed and covered her mouth.

When spring arrived his dad rode daily into Stonington, where the lobster boat was moored. He awakened at four, revving the Ford pickup until it rumbled like a B-17 on takeoff, its muffler shot from the salt air. After age twelve Falk accompanied him on summer mornings, although he remembered little of those harsh working days on the water apart from the chill of the wind in early June and the bitter cold of the sea, and the way his hands and feet never quite recovered until late September. Or maybe he didn't want to remember more, because by that time his father was drinking and his mother was gone.

Within a year they lost the house and moved to the woods, onto a stony lot of goldenrod and thistle where home was a sagging green trailer, the walls lined with flattened cereal boxes for insulation. In storms it heaved and moaned like a ship at sea. There were no more community sleeps. Everyone scattered to separate corners, and his brother and sister escaped as soon as they were old enough.

Falk sought refuge where he could find it—in the woods, on a cove, or at libraries, the tiny clapboard ones you came across in every community on the island. He took a particular liking to the one in the island's namesake town of Deer Isle, not only because it was closest but because it was the realm of steely-eyed Miss Clarkson. She demanded silence—exactly what Falk needed—and brooked neither nonsense nor intrusion, especially not from drunken males who came raging up the steps in search of wayward sons. In recalling her now, Falk realized she was the kind of woman he would always be attracted to—one who could glean the most from minimal conversation, as if she had an extra language skill. It was a little bit like being a good interrogator.


From the Hardcover edition.
Dan Fesperman|Author Q&A

About Dan Fesperman

Dan Fesperman - The Prisoner of Guantanamo

Photo © Lloyd Fox

Dan Fesperman’s travels as a writer have taken him to thirty countries and three war zones. Lie in the Dark won the Crime Writers’ Association of Britain’s John Creasey Memorial Dagger Award for best first crime novel, The Small Boat of Great Sorrows won their Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award for best thriller, and The Prisoner of Guantánamo won the Dashiell Hammett Award from the International Association of Crime Writers. He lives in Baltimore.
 
www.danfesperman.com

Author Q&A

Q) You set your last novel, The Warlord’s Son, in Afghanistan. Your new novel, ThePrisoner of Guantanamo, is set at the now famous prison camp. Why is it important for you to base your fiction on current events?

A) I’ve always been fascinated by the way events in the here and now echo so much of what has gone on before. So I guess you could say that it’s not just the immediacy I find attractive, it’s also the timelessness. In Afghanistan, foreign empires have been blundering around for centuries, always faring worst when they’re convinced they know best. How could you not be intrigued by the possibilities of exploring the way that’s playing out now, right under our noses?
Guantanamo, to me at least, represents yet another period in our history when we’ve let hubris and insecurity push us to the limits of what is considered “American behavior.” There is a side us that, when threatened, wants to just kick ass and take names and forget about rules and rights for a while. But if you look back through history, this has always produced its own set of problems. So it was fascinating for me to offer a fictional take on some of the forces in collision down at Gitmo.


Q) When and why did you decide that you wanted to set a novel at Guantanamo?

A) It partly goes back to a trip I took there way back in the late 1970s, covering a troop exercise ordered by President Jimmy Carter during a time of tension with Cuba. The place was much more isolated then–no Internet, no satellite dish TV, no 24-hour news cycle–and it struck me as one of the more surreal landscapes I’d ever set foot on. So when the Pentagon decided to turn the place into a sort of American Devil’s Island, I couldn’t resist the lure of the atmospheric possibilities. Six-hundred prisoners from 19 countries, plucked from the heart of the age-old East-West divide, surrounded by a few thousand soldiers who are slowly going stir crazy in the tropical heat. And everything is watched closely by the Cubans in their watchtowers. The geography is also very striking. Look in one direction and you would think you were in the high desert, with big cactus plants all over the hills. Turn around and you’re staring at a Caribbean vista you might find at Club Med. Then a three-foot iguana strolls by, followed by a Marine on patrol in greasepaint and camouflage. Perfect.


Q) How did you research The Prisoner of Guantanamo? How much access did you have to the camp?

A) I took the Pentagon’s standard two-day media tour, which involves a whole lot of minders following and monitoring your every move, plus a brief swing through the prison itself. You’re ordered not to speak with any prisoner. In fact, if you even make a hand signal or extended eye contact, the rules say you’re kicked out, although in reality the prisoners stare at you and you stare right back. At the time there were only a few other visitors–a couple of BBC guys and a camera crew. The military let us talk to guards, officers, cooks, doctors, chaplains and so on, but never without an Army press officer sitting or standing nearby, so you were never sure about the candor except in response to the most innocuous
questions. We also got a peek at Camp Iguana, the juvenile cellblock over on a bluff by the ocean. The best part of the experience was simply getting a physical feel for the place, for the sake of getting a grasp of the atmospherics. Most of the rest of my research occurred after I got back, and involved speaking with interrogators and officers who had done a hitch there. They were a lot more candid about everything one-on-one, with no minders around. The trove of hundreds of Gitmo memos unearthed by the American Civil Liberties Union in a Freedom of Information request was also invaluable, in that it offered a nice window onto the infighting between the FBI and the Pentagon over interrogation strategies.


Q) In your novel, you portray Guantanamo as an intricate, secretive world where no one is to be trusted–a world within a world. How true to life is this description?

A) I think the rampant mistrust was particularly prevalent during the period when the book was set–late summer of 2003. Just as in the novel, there were some arrests made then of a couple of Arabic speakers who were charged with espionage. There was a lot of loose talk about a possible spy ring, and at one time as many as a dozen people were under suspicion, so the atmosphere was fairly poisonous. Most of the charges came to nothing, and in the end some skeptics suggested they had a lot more to do with personal vendettas and cultural misunderstandings, which was hardly surprising. An odd footnote to that was that the first person arrested, a Muslim Army chaplain, was a fellow I’d interviewed down there only a few weeks earlier. He was mild-mannered, and so careful in his answers that he was practically no help at all for my purposes, although when I bumped into him later at dinner he loosened up a bit. From the moment I first heard about the charges against him, it didn’t seem to fit with the man’s personality. Sure enough, the whole case against him fell apart, and turned out to be nothing. But in a hothouse environment like Gitmo, the smallest little shoots of suspicion can grow into something pretty menacing almost overnight. That whole episode gave me a much better understanding of some of the dynamics down there.


Q) Revere Falk, the main character and an interrogator at the camp, is an Arabic speaker assigned to try to break a disturbed Yemeni who may or may not have valuable intelligence. How dangerous is this work for interrogators, especially for those who speak Arabic?

A) I don’t think it’s dangerous at all, except maybe to your mental stability. The people you’re interrogating are chained to the floor, you have an MP nearby at all times, and you’re pretty much in complete control of the situation. The prisoners don’t know your name, and there’s no way you’re going to tell them. The biggest hazard, if you can call it that, is possible damage to your career. The FBI people–at least in the time I’m dealing with in the book–ran up against a lot of frustration in trying to do things their own way, and felt like they were often spinning their wheels. The military officers were under a lot of pressure to get results, and weren’t always happy with the shortcuts they were taking to get them. It’s a pretty terrible place to have to go to work every day, and people tend to burn out quickly. But it sure beats the hell out of being on the other side of the wire.


Q) As Falk investigates the death of an American soldier who washed up on the wrong side of the border in Cuba, he realizes that operatives from his own government are trying to bury the investigation. Unfortunately, we see this happen in our own government, with the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, for instance. How much did this influence your story?

A) I don’t think it was Abu Ghraib that influenced me as much as the usual institutional tendency of all organizations, whether the Pentagon or General Motors, to try and sweep embarrassing problems under the rug. For a writer, the fun part is that this urge to cover up often produces more problems than it solves, and it sets up a lot of interesting tensions. Your characters are faced with choices between the organization’s values and their own. Everybody has to do a lot of thinking about what is right, and what is just, and whether or not those standards are flexible when you’re facing an enemy who doesn’t play by the same rules. And if you’re covering your tracks, isn’t that really a tacit admission that you’re ashamed of the course you’ve chosen? It’s a terrible thing to be caught in the middle of, but it offers pretty wonderful material for writers.


Q) Your novels are always incredibly topical and yet also highly entertaining page turners. How do you achieve that balance of providing both information and entertainment?

A) You always have to value the needs of the story and the needs of your characters over the need to be topical. Once you’ve captured the essence of a place you can pretty much take the story in any direction you want without sacrificing plausibility. You hope that the feel of the moment will accurately reflect the temper of the times. But this doesn’t mean you’re trying to mimic reality. What you’re striving for is an alternative reality. The scenery may look the same, and smell the same, and the issues at stake might be familiar enough to anyone who has been following the headlines. But once your characters begin to live and breathe you’ve got your own world to manage, and that’s when you stop worrying about what’s going on in the real one.


Q) This is your fourth novel. Will you continue to draw on your experiences as a journalist for your next work of fiction? What are you working on?

A) In October I did some traveling for research as a novelist only. It was a first for me, even if the necessary techniques for interviewing and digging out material are pretty much the same. I was in Jordan and Greece for a few weeks, talking to a lot of people and visiting sites that I want to use in the next book. I’ve also been speaking with some humanitarian aid workers about their experiences in different countries where I used to travel. The book I’ve got in mind will feature an aid worker who thinks he is just about to enjoy the fruits of an early retirement, but is instead recruited into a covert operation in Jordan, infiltrating an organization run by an old Palestinian friend of his. It’s sort of an Eric Ambler type of tale about a fellw with no experience in the secret world who is suddenly thrust among the professionals, for better or worse, and it will touch upon both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the current U.S. drive to identify financing sources of terror networks.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“A tantalizing, timely thriller. . . . Powerful.” —The Washington Post Book World “A superb spy thriller worthy of sharing shelf space with the novels of John le Carré and Ken Follett.” —USA Today “Fast-paced. . . . A page-turning thriller.”—San Francisco Chronicle“Heart-breakingly believable . . . Falk is a character of depth and fascination.” —Chicago Tribune

  • The Prisoner of Guantanamo by Dan Fesperman
  • July 10, 2007
  • Fiction - Thrillers
  • Vintage
  • $16.95
  • 9781400096145

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